Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Free Time

Last week, I stayed in Casa Amiga to conduct English lessons with five students who were interested in extra practice. While there were some good moments, often involving bilingual karaoke, they all had a lot of work to do for their summer job with Project Amigo. For this reason I was only able to teach for two days instead of the planned four. I was already getting bored before I moved to Cofradia on Friday to spend a lazy weekend in the hacienda, where I've now moved permanently. Because Cofradia is near the volcano and at a higher elevation, the climate is much more suited for sleeping and existing in general. The villagers refer to the weather as "refresco,” which I've gathered means something along the lines of “cool” or “crisp.” I haven't been scared to sleep alone since I found out that those gunshots at four in the morning last month were just celebrating the Virgen de Guadalupe, but by Monday I was definitely ready to leave the hacienda for more than just a quick run to the store for more Manzana lift (my beloved Mexican sparkling apple soda).

On Monday morning I met Francis, a recent graduate from Project Amigo's scholarship program, in the nearby town of Suchitlan where she tutors children with special needs for credit towards her major in special education. My plans for the week were to shadow her and hopefully help out in whatever way I saw fit. What I hadn't been told was that the kids were all scattered in different schools and in this particular week she only had plans to work with one boy for forty-five minutes, three days a week. These sorts of miscommunications have been increasingly common throughout the last few weeks. (For example, I left Queseria last week with a sad good-bye because I'd been told the school year was over. in fact, it's still going on, and they didn't understand why I arbitrarily stopped coming and didn't tell anybody that I wasn't planning to return.) Anyway, it's hard to tell whether blame lies in the flawed workings of small non-profits (to which I'm no stranger) or in the slowly-shrinking language gap.

In any case, most of the damage was already done when I found out that this child was sick and probably wouldn't be coming all week. I parted ways rather awkwardly with Francis and headed straight up a nearby mountain as per the suggestion of a local store owner. Trying not to slip on the rotten mangoes and guayabas that littered the path, I made it to a mountaintop overlook with a perfect view of the volcanoes. Immediately below me was a charred sugar-cane field; at the end of the harvest season farmers burn the soil to clarify it for the next year's crop.

It looks like the excess free time might get to be a problem soon, but for today I won't complain.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Five Notable Mishaps in My Language-Learning Ventures

1)Beto, on my tendency to forget gendered articles: “Rose, you can't ever forget that here, objects always have sex. In the United States, they usually don't.”
2)Last weekend I went to Maeva, an inexpensive beach resort in the town of Manzanillo. The waves there are apparently great for surfing, which makes the otherwise unremarkable town a tourist destination for many Americans and Europeans. The signs at Maeva, like most of the other attractions in Manzanillo, were translated into English. Here are the rules for the waterslide: “One at the time,” “no upside down your head,” and “no value stuff." (I figured out from the Spanish sign that this last one was trying to warn against wearing your sunglasses on the slide).
3)After my impromptu samba lesson at Casa Amiga, I couldn't stop sweating. I exclaimed “estoy caliente!” which means “I am hot.” Apparently, caliente does mean hot - when you're describing a climate, a shower, or anything but yourself. When you use it to describe yourself, it is slang for "interested in having sex."
4)When trying to give directions to someone who was giving me a ride, I couldn't understand why he didn't know the famous landmark of the big yellow sculpture. Turns out I was telling him to drive to the big yellow artist.
5)And the finale. At the Mexican dollar store (it's called the “one price store,” which really just isn't as catchy) I decided to stock up on food for my impending stay alone in the hacienda. There are lots of fun flavors of yogurt here that don't exist in the United States. I always try to opt for food that's exclusive to Mexico when I have the option, so I decided to try some. I was particularly skeptical about raisin flavored drinkable yogurt, but I put one bottle into the cart along with some apple- and mango-flavored bottles. That night at Casa Amiga, I went into the living room to announce that I was trying a new flavor that we don't have in the united states. (People here tend to find these differences interesting, and I like to be commended for my bravery). I showed everyone my raisin-flavored yogurt. It tasted a little funny, so I decided to look up the full name of the flavor, “ciruela pasa.” Pasa means raisin, but I didn't know about this ciruela fruit. Maybe it was something unique to Mexico, like tamarind or guayaba? Turns out that it means plum, and here, prunes are literally called “plum raisins,” so the flavor, in fact, was prune. Taking a second look at the diagram on the bottle that I had thought was of a person losing weight from a healthy diet of low-fat yogurt, I realized that it was in fact a deflating intestine. I had bought a liquid for bowel regularity and shown it off to about ten people.
On the bright side, yesterday I successfully ordered a sandwich at subway in Spanish. Baby steps, I suppose.

Sunday, 6 June 2010


Queseria is the name of the village nearby where many migrant worker families live in the summer, while it's the season for harvesting sugar cane. For the first three weeks of my stay, I'm working each morning at the school in Queseria. School goes from 9:00 am to noon, and that includes breakfast, lunch, and recess. The kids only spend about an hour and forty five minutes a day doing schoolwork. Two kindergarten classes are housed in small but well-furnished classrooms which are a recent development for the school, a gift from a national non-profit. Most of the kindergarteners are children of year-round residents; a third "advanced" class consists of children aged seven to fourteen. My first thought when I arrived in Queseria was “but what if it rains?” The advanced class uses a cluster of desks beneath an orange tree in the schoolyard. When I was introduced to Tita, who runs the school, Beto pointed to the desks and said “when Tita started here, they didn't even have those.”
Despite the fact that the advanced class teacher (whom we call "Maestro") tends to have a different mix of students every day, he strives for continuity in his lessons. All the students use a second-grade workbook, regardless of age. The youngest students are often lost, and the oldest ones are often bored, which contributes to a generally high level of classroom pandemonium. The school seems to rely heavily on teaching materials from the state government. One day a representative brought every child a copy of the international declaration of human rights, another day someone showed up with a bag of toothbrushes, a third day with “What to do when” pamphlets instructing families on how to prepare for volcano eruptions, floods, and forest fires.
Maestro tends to structure class around these materials. Mexico is also conducting a census, and for two days we all worked our way through a “census for kids” workbook with lots of mazes and connect-the-dots games, as well as some gently-chiding cartoon dogs stressing how important it is that everybody be counted in the census. One dog explains that it's important to count the houses as well as the people in Mexico, and to find out which houses have running water and electricity. This led to a discussion about who does and does not have electricity (as far as I can tell, it seems common here to live without running water). Mariflor announced that she does not have any lights in her house, and that she was completely done with the entire census workbook already.
On the way back from school, I asked if Mariflor usually finished things earlier than anyone else. This was how I discovered that rather than being particularly precocious, she is fourteen, literally twice the age of some of her classmates. I asked Maestro if it might be helpful if I worked individually with Mariflor. So starting tomorrow, that's my new role.